Jenny hangs the traps every sunset. She measures the string against her arm and wraps it twice around each jar tied with a double knot. She hangs them from the strongest branches of the big dead oak on Hangman’s Hill. Quick and careful, just like Mamma taught her. Will-o-wisps weigh hardly nothing at all, but they’re mean when they get loose. Before the last light is gone, she pushes Mamma’s bicycle back down the hill and through the swamp. She’s still too short to ride it, but the basket is handy for holding the traps.
Mamma taught her everything she could about trapping wisps before the consumption took her. She taught her how to hang the jars, and how to make the sweet, sticky syrup she paints on the bottom of each one. When Jenny was little, Mamma would tell her stories while she worked, interrupted by strings of hacking coughs. She’d tell her about travelers lured off the road and into swamps by wicked wisps. How they would pretend to be torches and guide unsuspecting humans into deep pools to drown for no reason at all except for mischief. She told her about duty, about ancient pacts and careful work. That was how Mamma taught Jenny, and how Mamma’s mamma had taught her. Jenny would’ve liked to have met her grandmother, but she died of illness a long time ago.
An hour before sunrise, when the sky just starts to get light, Jenny pushes the rusty old bicycle back up the hill and collects the traps. In the pre-dawn light she can just make out the wisp struggling to escape from the syrup lining the bottom of the jar. She unties the knots with quick, careful fingers–rope’s too dear to waste–and hurries them home before they’re spoiled by the sun. In the dark under the shack, the wisps really do glow like distant torches.
On the darkest night of the month, Jenny takes the full traps, corks them tight and decorates them with a bit of ribbon. Mamma always said it wasn’t for anything, but customers would always pay a little more if the traps were pretty. She sells them at a little stall in the New Moon Market. The market’s loud and busy and full of strange smells. The pale folk that come there frighten her, but they pay well for her wisps in jars with coins minted by kings long dead. As the months pass, she grows accustomed to them, and even the market becomes routine. The boy at the stall across the way, which sells all manner of strange bits and bobs, makes eyes at her. She doesn’t know if she’s ready for courting, but he’s handsome enough.
She grows tall enough to ride her mother’s bicycle.
When the coughing starts, she tells herself it’s just a cold.
Hugh J. O’Donnell (he/they) writes fiction, produces podcasts, and likes things. His work has appeared in The No Sleep Podcast, Quoth the Raven, and Andromeda Spaceways, among others. He is also the author of the novella The City: A Story in 140 Characters. He is currently producing Everyday Drabbles, an ongoing daily flash fiction project. His greatest achievement thus far has been winning Carl Kasell’s voice on his voicemail. O’Donnell lives in Western New York with his husband, cats, and obsolete video game consoles. You can find more of his work online at HughJODonnell.com.